Setting goals appears simple, but there are a number of rules that must be followed if you are to deliver success, says professor Greg Whyte

For any athlete, major challenges can seem insurmountable when viewed as a whole. The key to delivering success is to dissect the challenge into a number of small steps which together make up your journey along your road to success.

Each step can be viewed as a short-term goal. Combining a number of steps (short-term goals) leads to the delivery of medium-term goals and combining medium-term goals leads to the completion of your journey.

These rules are encapsulated in the SMART principle that is often referred to by coaches and psychologists. But what does it really mean?

The S in Smart: specific

When setting your goals, you should be very specific about what you are trying to achieve. Focusing on one determinant of success with each goal makes it much easier to achieve.

As well as being specific, the goal should be significant in its contribution to achieving overall success. Your challenge should be important to you, so every goal, however small, should be important in moving you closer to your desired long-term outcome.

In order to ensure that you are continually delivering success, your goals should be stretching. Make sure you design your goals to target a progressive improvement in each determinant of success.

The M in Smart: measurable

You have to know when you have achieved your goal, so it must be measurable. It may not be possible to objectively measure some goals. If your goal is to reduce anxiety, for example, you can use a subjective rating which you identify beforehand. You could rate anxiety on a 1 (not anxious) to 5 (very anxious) scale and continually assess your progress.

The A in Smart: agree

It’s important that you agree your goals before you set out on your journey. A lack of clear definition before starting will result in you meandering as you try to find your way. Every goal should be achievable, but should also be challenging. By making goals too easy you will progress slowly, leading to a loss of motivation.

Your goals should direct you to take action and you must be required to work in order to achieve them. Do not set goals for things that already exist.

The R in Smart: results

Your goals must be relevant and all goals should be results-orientated. You must always look to achieve a predetermined result whether it is objective or subjective. Rewarding yourself when you reach your goal is crucial to ensure you optimise your motivation. Recognising success in attaining your short and medium-term goals
by rewarding yourself will provide a valuable psychological tool that can be used to maintain your commitment.

The T in Smart: timely

Think carefully about the order of your goals. They need to be timely – some goals need to be achieved before you progress to the next. A common reason for failing to achieve is that you have not achieved the prerequisite goals. Giving yourself too much time can lead to lack of focus and too little time to deliver. Tracking goals allows you to monitor progress along your road to success, ensuring you take the most direct route and avoid wasting time and effort.

» Greg Whyte is professor of applied sports science at Liverpool John Moores University and director of the Centre for Health and Human Performance in London. He is the author of Achieve The Impossible (£12.99, Bantam Press; achievetheimpossible.co.uk)